FREE AT LAST?: In ‘Runaway Slave,’ pastor and activist C.L. Bryant and other African American conservatives reject liberal politics and ask whether big government entitlements are a new form of slavery.
The title of the new film Runaway Slave might lead some to dismiss it as just another dramatization of a commonly rehearsed chapter of black history in America. But when one discovers that the film is actually a documentary about a politically liberal African American pastor’s conversion into the conservative political movement, the title suddenly takes on a much more provocative tone. On one level, Reverend C.L. Bryant’s Runaway Slave is a coming-of-age narrative about his shift from being a pastor and NAACP Chapter President to being a prominent defender of small government, free markets, and personal responsibility. On another level, however, it is a clear rebuke of what the filmmakers perceive as the black community’s enslavement to the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Bryant wants us to understand that the black community is not a political monolith, and that our moral and economic concerns might be better addressed by the Republican Party’s conservative platform.
A press release for the movie leaves no doubt about the film’s point of view. After announcing that the movie comes to us “from the creators of Tea Party: The Documentary Film,” it goes on to describe the film’s general premise:
Rev. Bryant takes viewers on an historic journey across America that traces the footsteps of runaway slaves who escaped to freedom along routes that became known as the Underground Railroad. But in the film, he also travels a “new underground railroad” upon which Black Conservatives are speaking out against big government policies which have established a “new plantation” where “overseers” like the NAACP and so-called “civil rights” leaders keep the Black community 95 percent beholden to one political party.
The great achievement of Runaway Slave is its geographically and ideologically diverse portrait of black conservatism. Bryant talks with financial conservatives like Marvin Rodgers, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, an aspiring politician who emphasizes the “pocketbook politics” of supporting small businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship. He speaks with academics like the economist Thomas Sowell, conservative school-reform advocates, right-to-life activists, and small business owners. Interestingly, everyone but the Wall Street and country club conservatives are present. Their omission is noteworthy — precious few black conservatives are a part of the proverbial 1 percent. Nevertheless, by interviewing grassroots activists and organizations in nearly every region of the country, Bryant convincingly demonstrates that black conservatism is a national thread within the African American political tradition.
The film sets forth a conventionally conservative view of government: lower taxes; less government regulation; strong defense of property rights. Additionally, participants construe the government as a presumptuous behemoth that presents itself as the “Daddy,” “Slave Master,” and “God” of American citizens. In this framework, reducing the size of the public sector becomes an article of faith, not simply a political position.
Two dynamics merit mentioning here. First, deep appreciation for our nation’s originating documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc. — sits alongside profound disappointment with the current state of government. If our origins are laudable and our contemporary moment is lamentable, as the movie claims, then we must conclude that we lost our national footing somewhere along the way. The documentary avoids conceptual clarity about how this moment of decline happened, when it happened, and who is responsible for it. Progressives and Socialists — two distinct traditions which are conflated in the film — are blamed for leading America astray, but the accusation is too vague to persuade anyone who is not already a true believer.
Secondly, the attacks on government are general — there is no exploration of the merits and demerits of Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill, for instance, programs that are popular across the political spectrum. Instead, the viewer encounters Government as a monstrosity that overtaxes, overregulates, and overreaches at every turn.
Runaway Slave is also noteworthy for its conservative form of American civil religion. Many Americans are familiar with more progressive forms of civil religion — Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, for example. But there is another side to American exceptionalism. U.S. congressman Allen West of Florida alludes to this tradition when citing Matthew 5 to position America as “a city set on a hill.” America, in this view, is the country where you reap what you sow. A land where hard work, education, and the hand of Providence guides families upward on the ladder of social mobility. It’s not difficult to see how many of these cultural values have become inseparable from the American brand of Christianity.
After watching the documentary, the viewer is left to wonder: what distinguishes conservative visions of government from the liberal visions? Reverend Bryant is not endorsing a libertarian or anarchist view of society. Despite his impassioned pleas about escaping from the plantation, there is no sign that he wants to destroy the master’s house. That is to say, Runaway Slave does not explicitly or implicitly advocate dismantling our social insurance system, ending subsidies to large agribusiness corporations, or stopping the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Generally speaking, political realities temper the policy visions of liberals and conservatives. Bryant documents a deep commitment to liberty within the American political tradition. Rightly so. But there is little — if any — mention of our political tradition of equality, a complementary thread in our tapestry. The argument of the film would be strengthened if it directly addressed, for instance, the policy trade-offs that Presidents Nixon (expanding food stamps, starting the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bush (Medicare prescription drug program, comprehensive immigration reform proposal) made between liberty and equality. That oversight notwithstanding, Runaway Slave is one of the most expansive treatments of black conservatism currently available, and is therefore worth watching and discussing.
View the theatrical trailer below, and visit the Runaway Slave website for information on where to see the film in your area.
POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Protesters from either side of the political divide have descended on Washington this year to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.
I have to ask myself: am I part of the American majority who wants to scale back government expenses — as long as none of my personal benefits are touched?
I confess: I turned 63 last week, and I don’t want Social Security or Medicare reduced or — heaven help us — privatized.
I have personal reasons.
My husband and I have been saving heavily for 20 years, have paid off the mortgage on our modest house, have nursing-home insurance policies, and have no debts whatsoever. Nevertheless, our retirement accounts have been significantly diminished by the recession of 2008-11, and the future of stocks and bonds does not look good. Without Social Security to supplement our savings, we’d have a rough retirement.
Both of us take good care of our health. We’ve never smoked, and we exercise daily. We eat no red meat, few desserts, and lots of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. My weight has always been right where it’s supposed to be, and his isn’t far off. Nevertheless, I’m scheduled to have open heart surgery next week, and I will need to have costly check-ups and possibly medications for the rest of my life. Without Medicare, I’d probably have a very short retirement.
But my reasons are not entirely personal. Although my husband and I are the kind of people Republicans love (and Jesus worried about), we will be in trouble if the senior safety nets come down, right along with people who have had to face unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, addictions, natural disasters, accidents, disabilities, and catastrophic illness; right along with people who don’t know how to manage money, who abuse their health, and who long ago stopped thinking about tomorrow (see my personal blog for an earlier post, “The United States of Florida“).
Really, folks, this isn’t a question of deserving. As Jesus pointed out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God may or may not be the sender, but I’ve noticed that crap falls on both the good and the bad as well. We all benefit from God’s grace, and we’re all just one step away from catastrophe.
Government programs can’t give us comfortable lifestyles if we have no job and no savings. They may not be able to give us good health if our bodies are faulty or abused. They can’t keep us from getting old and dying. What they can do is help us — all of us who need help — have food, shelter, and necessary medical care.
By the way, I’m not saying that Social Security and Medicare are our most important social programs. Nothing is more important than educating our young, and comparative test scores show that the U.S. is in trouble here (22nd place in math!). Still, many of our suburban schools are excellent. We say we believe in equality of opportunity: what are we doing to assure that all of our children, no matter where they live or how much their parents pay in property tax, have access to good schools?
Back to my main point. If all of this means additional funding — a payroll tax on all earned income, for example, and not just the first $106,800 — so be it. If it means ending President Obama’s extremely unwise payroll tax holiday, so be it. If it means I have to pay more taxes, so be it.
Our government is not only of the people and by the people, it is also for the people. May Lincoln’s vision of a nation dedicated to the common good not perish from the earth.
Should government be more or less involved in the lives of its citizens? Most of our political clashes stem from our different answers to this question. And when Christians get entangled in the debate, the conflict often gets translated into biblical terms.
Among other controversies, the health-care debate has shined a light on the different ways that African Americans and European Americans think about government in the lives of people.
I was recently talking with a European-American friend of mine who is also an evangelical. I am African-American and evangelical. We were talking about the tense debate that has been going on in our nation about health care when he raised an interesting question about race. He told me that his big concern about the potential passing of a health-care reform bill was a government-run health-care system, which would lead to bigger government. I responded by agreeing with his concerns, but stating that he should have been concerned about big government militarily during the George W. Bush years as well.
I then asked the first question: “Why do some conservatives so easily see the threat of big government when it has to do with health care, but can’t see big government when it’s running an expensive war in Iraq? Not many conservatives complained about how much money the war in Iraq was taking out of their pockets, but now they’re angry about how much the potential passing of a health-care reform bill would. Both the management of war and health care are types of big government, leading to spending money we don’t have as a country in debt.”
My friend responded by asking this question: “Why do so many African-Americans trust government with health care? Why are so many not concerned about big government in this way?”
I thought this was a great question that gets to the racial divide around how some African Americans and some European-Americans see government and corporate America from different perspectives. One of the reasons some European-Americans would rather see health care worked out in the private sector and not run by government has to do with how this country started. For many European-Americans, life in the U.S. began with a seeking of independence from European government systems and the pioneering of a new way of living based on democracy — and maybe more importantly, the development of an economic system called capitalism. This history sheds light on why conservatives and many evangelicals today would be concerned about big government.
For African-Americans there is a history in this country which begins with slavery. The African-American begins his or her experience in the economic system of capitalism and free enterprise as the slave. From there, the experience with the economic system for many African-Americans is within a race-based, sub-system called Jim Crow Segregation. Primarily, government has been the catalyst to open the door to freedom from slavery, even if Jim Crow Segregation was one of its initial alternatives. Overall, government has been the instrument through which substantive change has come for African Americans. The Civil War, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act are all government-led realities.
Could this be the foundational reason why, in this society still influenced by race, many European-Americans are concerned about big government while many African-Americans embrace it? I believe the church in the United States of America must rise out of being the most racially segregated institution in this nation so that it can lead conversations and forums on reconciliation. At the church where I serve as senior pastor, we have a class called City Matters which seeks to raise awareness and spark reconciling discussion. We’ve also hosted an initiative called The Invitation to Racial Righteousness, developed by the Evangelical Covenant Church of which we are a part.
We need more churches to lead these types of initiatives. These conversations and forums could help us understand one another better. We need to move from demonizing those with different perspectives than ourselves and seek to understand the historical roots of our differences. It is possible to love God, follow Christ in a radical way, and have conversations about differing perspectives on how we view the role of government. Related Articles:
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This is a developing thought process for me, so please hear me out for a moment. In the heat of the current battle over health-care reform in America, it does seem inevitable to many of us that the federal government will continue to grow.
I don’t think there is an example of a democracy that has “un-done” growth. After all, it is the nature of a living thing to want to grow. This, of course, is at the heart of our nation’s present debate. How much of a role should government play in our lives? The conservatives classify big government as “doomsday coming” and proof of societal decline. The liberals, on the other hand, see the expansion of federal programs as a fulfillment of the government’s obligation to its people. But here is another take …